The year-end collapse that turned 2008 into one of the most disappointing seasons in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history and the tumultuous offseason that followed it are officially things of the past. When Bucs players report Friday to One Buc Place for the first training camp under new Coach Raheem Morris, it will be time to look forward, not back. There's no way of knowing what lies ahead for this edition of the Bucs, but five critical issues will factor heavily in their success or failure.
Coach Raheem Morris
The Bucs are taking a chance handing the reigns to a 32-year-old former secondary coach with six years of NFL experience. The Glazers are going with their gut on this one. What kind of game-day coach will Morris be? Can get his message through to 53 players the way he did to the eight he dealt with as defensive backs coach? Morris has hired experienced and mostly successful coordinators in Jim Bates (defense) and Jeff Jagodzinski (offense). He's off to a good start. But can he maintain the momentum?
A New Offense
Jagodzinski's offense is much less complicated, and therefore easier to learn, than former coach Jon Gruden's. That's noteworthy because one of the things that kept Gruden's teams from capitalizing offensively was an inability to quickly plug new players into the scheme. Jagodzinski's offense is player friendly and puts a greater emphasis on running the ball, which figures to be a Bucs' strength. The concerns are the young offensive linemen adapting to the zone-blocking scheme Jagodzinski has installed and finding a capable quarterback among Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich and rookie Josh Freeman.
A New Defense
The Bucs began weaning themselves off former coordinator Monte Kiffin's famous Tampa Two scheme even before Kiffin left last year for the University of Tennessee. As a result, the change to Jim Bates' blitz-heavy, man-to-man coverage scheme won't come as much of a shock to the players' systems. But the personnel remains best-suited for a Tampa Two style of play. His job is to squeeze a lot of square pegs into round holes, particularly at defensive tackle and cornerback. If Bates can make the right fits, the pass rush should improve and the transition go smoothly. If not, a Bucs defense long among the league's stingiest could become a glaring weakness.
Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn and Jeff Garcia are gone. Fact of the matter is, the Bucs may miss them more in the locker room than on the field. Those guys were leaders and will not quickly be replaced. Leaders usually emerge over time, so the Bucs can only hope players such as Barrett Ruud, Chris Hovan and Earnest Graham have earned the kind of respect that makes players look up to them and follow their lead. A couple members of the old guard such as Ronde Barber, Jermaine Phillips and Jeff Faine remain, but if the Bucs are going to make a successful run of it this season, new leaders will have to emerge from a new group of game-day regulars.
The Fan Base
Time was, heat, humidity and crowd noise gave the Bucs a huge edge in home games at Raymond James Stadium. The heat and humidity will be back just like always this year, but what about the crowd noise? Though every game sold out last year, attendance was clearly down on game days. The Bucs face the possibility of not selling out some games and having them blacked out on local TV. Enthusiasm for the Bucs is still high, but a slow start and the prospect of a disappointing season could quell it to the point the Bucs could no longer count on their fans to help make opponents miserable.